It’s bleak November. The season of endings. A
reminder of mortality. The undertaker’s month…oh, joy!
Does anyone else love this month as much as I do?
You can keep the darling buds of May. July’s
screeching sunshine. Daffodils. Blue skies. Green grass. Withered
leaves rustling in the wind, tree limbs sodden and stark, the last
straggling geese honking mournfully in the gray skies – these are
the things that thrill my soul.
Poor November gets overlooked, coming as it does,
after October’s blaze of glory and before December’s silver sparkle.
I think it’s because retailers haven’t found a way to sell it.
There’s no extorting of candy in November. No exchange of gifts, no
avalanche of cards. Oh, the grocery stores put the Pepperidge Farm
stuffing bags front and center, but at least the stuffing doesn’t
flash and beep and sing Oh Tannenbaum.
There’s only a simple little holiday in November,
my favorite one – Thanksgiving.
You can’t celebrate Thanksgiving without
remembering its origins. When I was a kid, we got a bit of a
sugarcoated version of those origins. It went something like this:
The Pilgrims came to America seeking religious freedom. After a
perilous sea voyage, they arrived at Plymouth Rock, dropped anchor,
and proceeded to starve to death. The Indians – who, by the way,
were absolutely thrilled to see them – helpfully pointed out the
best fishing holes and taught them how to grow corn. Grateful, the
settlers decided to thank their new friends by throwing a huge feast
– the first Thanksgiving.
In later years, we came to learn that the story of
colonization in America, and in other parts of the world, wasn’t
quite so sweet. Deception, greed, and brutality, it turned out,
existed in the new world, just as they had in the old. We all know
what happened next. We know about the broken treaties, the
betrayals, the wars, the deaths on both sides.
And yet, hundreds of years later, the spirit of
that first feast endures.
Why is that?
Because it’s important to sit down with families
and friends to give thanks, of course. To take stock. To count our
blessings. But I think there’s more to it.
I think we humans have a deep need to keep trying.
Trying to do better. Trying to learn from our mistakes. Trying to
get it right. Because to do anything else would be to admit defeat.
It would mean that the best of what’s inside us – love, trust, faith
and honor – will always lose out to the worst.
I’ve seen this endeavoring again and again over the past
year. I’ve seen it, as have we all, on a huge and revolutionary
scale – with world leaders and the rich and famous pledging their
efforts and fortunes towards the betterment of the poor. And I’ve
seen it on a much smaller scale – with everyday Americans doing
extraordinary things. Without billions, without fanfare, without
much more than conviction, passion, and hope.
Take Merrie Campbell. Merrie is a high school
senior who emailed me to ask if I might donate a few copies of A
Northern Light to a community service project she was
undertaking to help restock the libraries of two Biloxi schools
destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Merrie managed to get 4,000 books,
school supplies and equipment, $11,000 in corporate donations, and
then she got American Airlines to fly the books from her hometown to
Biloxi. All in all, Merrie reckons she raised about $100,000 in
goods and cash to help children in a devastated community.
Did I mention Merrie is a high school kid?
And take North Country Reads. Take A Tale
for Three Counties.
A Northern Light had the great honor of
being chosen for these two tri-county reading programs in New York
State earlier this year. Both programs are as grass roots as grass
roots get. They were started by community people – moms and dads,
librarians and teachers. They choose one book to read as a
community, then they bring the author to the area, and host talks
and readings in local libraries and schools. Funds come from local
businesses, private individuals, and state grants. Local media also
champion the cause.
Without huge budgets, and without Paris Hilton
jetting in, the people behind these programs managed to do something
remarkable – they got their communities excited about reading.
You know how some people, real rays of sunshine,
just love to say things like, “The novel is dead” or “No one reads
anymore” or “No one cares about books.”
Well, the people behind these programs proved the
naysayers wrong. It turns out that books are alive and people do care about them.
Just ask the students at Case Middle School in
Watertown, NY, the book club kids at Sackets Harbor Central School,
Sackets Harbor, NY, and the students at Indian River High School, Indian River, NY. They
read A Northern Light, and when I came to give them a
presentation on the book, they peppered me with questions.
Challenged me. Called me to the mat. We talked about the book and
about writing. We laughed, and then talked some more, right on
through a few dismissal bells.
Ask the north country librarians. The ones in
places like Port Leyden and Medina, who make their small libraries
warm and vital community centers, where a mom might find a rocking
chair in which to read to her kids, or a senior citizen can enjoy
coffee and companionship. Ask the fairygodmothers masquerading as
librarians who visit the maternity wards of rural NY hospitals
bearing books, all to ensure that a newborn baby’s first gift is a
woman who held back tears after she spoke aloud about the
difficulties between Lawton and Pa, characters in A Northern
Light, and about how it felt to her, as a girl, to see her
family shattered by anger and loss. Ask the community
college students who work all day, feed their kids, go to night
class, and somehow still find time to read.
all be Bill Gates and Bill Clinton and Bono, but we don’t need to
be. We can, each one of us, do something. Some small, significant
thing. For as the 18th century statesman and philosopher Edmund
Burke said, “No one could make a greater mistake than he who did
nothing because he could do only a little.”
For Merrie Campbell, for the organizers behind A Tale for Three Counties and North Country Reads, for
every librarian and teacher who puts books into the hands of
children, for all the people in this world who never stop trying, I am
Happy Thanksgiving to you.